GEORGE KENNEDY: Democrats will have to fight to win and retain Missouri seats

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 7:36 p.m. CDT; updated 6:55 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 23, 2014

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information about the number of Republicans and Democrats in the Missouri legislature.

By all accounts, this is looking like a bad year for us Democrats.

At the national level, Nate Silver, the statistician-journalist who called the 2012 election with impressive precision, expects Republicans to take control of the U.S. Senate. Back home in Missouri, they already dominate both houses of the legislature. *Republicans hold a 108-51 edge in the House, with four vacancies. In the Senate, it's 23-9-2.  It takes 109 to override a veto in the House, 23 in the Senate.

In the General Assembly, those are veto-proof margins, meaning that straight party-line votes in both houses would exceed the two-thirds required to override a veto by the governor.

Nobody expects the Democrats to regain control of either house in November, so the party has set a more modest goal. Matt Nappe, whose title is data and technology manager for the state party, explained it to the Muleskinners last week. Hoping as always for cause to be optimistic, I went to listen.

His talk was billed as a look at “winnable Republican seats” in both houses. In fact, he focused on the House of Representatives and identified not only seats to be won but a handful that require defending. Boone County harbors one of each.

As you’d expect from a data manager, he provided plenty of data, including a couple of measures I’d never heard before. One was the “McNixon score,” a composite of voter support for Sen. Claire McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon, the two most recent Democratic standard bearers. The other was the Democratic Performance Index, which he defined as a construct of the hypothetical performance of “an average candidate in an average year.” In both cases, the higher the score, the better for the Democrat.

For each “battleground” district, Nappe also records the most recent margin of victory (or defeat) and the identities of McCaskill supporters who didn’t vote in the last mid-term election. Those, he noted, will be prime targets of the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote “ground game” this year.

The goal to be sought is a takeover of enough seats in both houses to sustain any vetoes. That translates to at least four seats in each house. Nappe declared a pick-up of as many as 10 seats in the House of Representatives within reach.

He identified six Republican-held House seats as the most promising for Democratic challengers. One is the 44th District, won by only 320 votes by first-time candidate Caleb Rowden. Nappe conceded that the district, which covers the northeast quadrant of Boone County, “leans right,” with lower-than-ideal McNixon and DPI scores.

But the party pros see the Democratic challenger, Thomas Pauley, a financial adviser who lives in Hallsville, as a strong candidate. (The Columbia Daily Tribune reported Wednesday the Republicans’ first round of funding Rowden’s defense.)

Then there are another six districts where Democratic incumbents will have to play better defense than either MU basketball team managed this season. One is District 47, won last election by a first-time candidate who is widely regarded in Democratic circles as a real up-and-comer.

That’s John Wright, of Rocheport. His margin of victory was only 549 votes, and the Democratic Performance Index of 51 percent suggests a down-the-middle partisan split. The district covers western Boone and more conservative areas in Cooper, Randolph and Howard counties.

Fortunately for Democrats, Rep. Wright has resources as well as ideas. He spent more than $200,000 of his own money on his 2012 race.

That’s important because overall in 2012 Republican legislative candidates outspent Democrats by about seven to one, Nappe recalled.

The other districts to be defended are mainly in the suburbs of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Another five districts are considered “open,” meaning that there will be no incumbent of either party. Three are now held by Republicans.

In addition to the numbers, Nappe said the Democrats will try to capitalize on three main issues. They’ll try to hold Republicans accountable for HB 253, the top-heavy tax cut bill that would have slashed state revenue and that passed on a nearly party-line vote. Gov. Nixon’s veto was narrowly sustained when a handful of Republicans joined the Democrats.

Expect Democratic candidates also to advocate the Medicaid expansion so far thwarted by the majority and a similarly stalled raise in the state minimum wage.

By the time Nappe finished, the room was buzzing with optimism. Ten seats? Why not?

Then, of course, we walked out into the light of day.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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